For Antoine Griezmann, the primary few months of this season drifted uncomfortably near indignity. His status at Atlético Madrid, it seemed, had diminished to the extent that he was a mere curiosity, one of the vital celebrated forwards of his era reduced to something between a meme and a punchline.
The issue was not, really, of his own making. A couple of years ago, Griezmann had left Atlético — the team that had helped to make him a star — for Barcelona. The move, announced in a glossy, LeBron James-style documentary that did little to endear him to anyone, didn’t work out.
The Barcelona he had joined was creaking and fading, the dull rumble of thunder gathering in the gap. Griezmann played well only in flashes and flurries, not the kind of return expected — or needed, given the club’s increasing desperation — for his eye-watering cost. Last 12 months, he was permitted to return on loan to Atlético, his purgatory in Catalonia at an end.
The complications, though, didn’t end. His loan deal ran for 2 seasons. If he played a certain variety of minutes within the second campaign, Atlético can be compelled to pay Barcelona a set fee to retain him permanently. Unwilling to commit and hopeful of reducing the value, Atlético sought to seek out a loophole.
Diego Simeone, the club’s manager, began introducing Griezmann only as a second-half substitute. He played half-hour here, 20 minutes there. Atlético never confirmed the rationale, but that Griezmann was being held back as a negotiating technique seemed apparent.
That specific issue was, thankfully, sorted out before the World Cup. However the damage — at the least to Griezmann’s fame — had been done. Barcelona didn’t want Griezmann. Atlético did, but only on the low-cost. He was not the impish, inventive forward who had been thought to be certainly one of the best players on the planet only a couple of years earlier. Now, he was an afterthought.
After which got here Qatar. Griezmann shouldn’t be probably the most celebrated member of France’s attacking line — that title would go to Kylian Mbappé — and he shouldn’t be probably the most prolific, due to the evergreen Olivier Giroud. He may not have the world at his feet, like Aurélien Tchouaméni. But there’s a compelling case to be made that Griezmann is a very powerful member of Didier Deschamps’s squad.
Griezmann is probably not France’s star, but he’s actually its brain. It’s Griezmann who provides imagination, and guile, and craft. That’s what has at all times appealed to Deschamps about him, what has helped him accrue 72 consecutive appearances for his nation over the past six years.
At this World Cup, though, it’s one other trait that has made Griezmann invaluable. After injuries to Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté and Karim Benzema, Deschamps needed to construct a latest approach for the French on the fly. He needed to recalibrate his midfield and adjust the positioning of his attack. Griezmann is the one who makes all of it work. He has the intuition to change how he plays, and where he plays, to maintain things running easily, and the flexibility to ensure that he thrives wherever he’s required.
Griezmann has at all times had that gift, after all. He has, at various stages in his profession, played on each wings, as a lone striker, and as a central, creative force. At club level, it is feasible — even likely — that his versatility has held him back. Europe’s major teams now play in high-definition systems, ones through which the specialists required for each role are recruited at vast cost. That Griezmann shouldn’t be quite so easily pigeonholed might, in some lights, appear to be a drawback.
In international soccer, though, it is sort of the other. Even Deschamps, beneficiary of the fruit of the game’s most prolific talent farm, has to regulate and adapt to what is obtainable to him; he cannot simply buy an answer to any particular problem. In those circumstances, a player like Griezmann, someone who might be regardless of the coach needs him to be, is a rare and precious thing: a Swiss Army knife that serves, quite nicely, as a key.